Losers in sheriff's primary suggest that voters didn't like the winner, either

September 18, 1994|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writer

The three Democrats who lost their bids for sheriff in Tuesday's primary election said Harford County voters sent a strong message that they want a change in law enforcement leadership and that the incumbent sheriff didn't get it.

Robert E. Comes, the incumbent, won nomination for a second term by collecting 7,638 votes, 37 percent of the Democratic ballots cast, over challengers George W. Cunningham, who got 5,237 votes; E. Dale Zepp, a former deputy, 3,848 votes; and former Sheriff Dominick J. Mele, 3,793 votes.

Assistant State's Attorney Joseph P. Meadows, who ran unopposed and received 10,291 votes for sheriff in Tuesday's Republican primary, called Mr. Cunningham's strong showing "a lot of anti-Bob Comes sentiment."

Mr. Meadows and Mr. Comes will go head-to-head for the sheriff's post in the Nov. 8 general election.

Mr. Cunningham said Thursday that he would have beaten Mr. Comes had Mr. Mele and Mr. Zepp had not entered the primary.

'Not the choice of the majority'

"Mr. Comes was not the choice of the majority, judging from the nearly 13,000 votes cast for the three challengers," Mr. Mele said.

Those numbers "have to leave the incumbent with some sleepless nights ahead," said Mr. Zepp.

Mr. Comes, contacted in Ocean City, where the Maryland Sheriff's Association Conference concludes tomorrow, rejected any notion that Harford voters want him out of office.

"The only thing the numbers show is that each voter picked a candidate to support and voted for him," Mr. Comes said. "The numbers indicate nothing at all about new leadership."

Mr. Comes said voters made a clear statement that they preferred to have an elected sheriff rather than a police force and a police chief appointed by the county executive to handle law enforcement duties in the county.

Police issue on ballot

Harford voters will decide which system they prefer in a referendum vote on the county police issue Nov. 8.

"I don't think that was ever an issue in the primary," said Mr. Zepp. "That should be laid to rest once and for all in November."

Mr. Meadows said the referendum outcome is difficult to predict and that the sheriff's race has "little to do with the police force issue."

"This race is about job performance," he said.

He contended that the incumbent's 37 percent vote tally indicates "a lot of dissatisfaction" with the way Mr. Comes has run the sheriff's office.

Mr. Meadows said he will be stepping up his campaign in the coming weeks with more advertising and a media blitz. He said he will continue to "talk to the people, to let them know what Joe Meadows stands for."

Mr. Comes said his campaign team will hold a strategy meeting this week to decide his approach to the general election.

"I'm sure personal contact with the voters will be a main part of that strategy," he said. "No one has been out there, among the people, as much or more than I have in the last four years."

The death of an inmate

Mr. Comes received much negative attention after inmate William Ford died in the county Detention Center in 1992 and the county paid $400,000 to the family under threat of a lawsuit.

A Harford grand jury investigation subsequently decided that the inmate either committed suicide or died while trying to fake suicide, but the county administration insisted that it had needed to settle the claim quickly to limit its liability.

Mr. Comes, who withheld comment for the duration of the lengthy investigation, contended that the grand jury finding exonerated everyone in the sheriff's office from any wrongdoing. He called the county's settlement "premature" and "unnecessary."

In the wake of the settlement, Mr. Zepp, a former deputy with the rank of major under Comes who supervised the jail, sued the county. He contends that he was wrongfully forced to retire during the controversy.

Mr. Zepp would not comment on that matter last week, citing the pending lawsuit and saying it was not an issue during the primary.

"New leadership will fix the problem," Mr. Meadows said. "There is no need to change the structure."

Mr. Cunningham agreed. "If you have a flat tire, you don't go buy a new car," he said.

Because Mr. Comes denies that his office has any major problems, Mr. Meadows said, he wants a public debate on the issues, "with members of the media asking tough questions.

"For one thing, I would like to know who is managing the Harford County sheriff's office," Mr. Meadows said.

"Is it Bob Comes or Carl Klockars?"

Carl Klockars is a Delaware professor who is a consultant to the sheriff and is paid by the Maryland Sheriff's Association.

The matter of 'outsiders'

While declining to offer specific names, Mr. Zepp said that "outsiders" are at the root of the problems in the sheriff's office.

"Outsiders have their own agenda and that's not always good for the sheriff's office," he said.

"I'm the only outsider," said Mr. Cunningham. "I've only lived here 10 years, and I don't owe anyone anything politically."

Shortly after his defeat last week, Mr. Cunningham said he will run for the office again in 1998.

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